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Everything Is Haram and So Are You; or, What to Do with a Birthday Card by Arshia Simkin


Arshia Simkin’s “Everything Is Haram and So Are You; or, What to Do with a Birthday Card” is one of three winners of the 2020 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.


“Everything Is Haram and So Are You; or, What to Do with a Birthday Card” is funny and sweet and sad and nostalgic. Surprising, too. There is a tenderness here, and a secret heart. I love those things. And what I love so much about this story are all the things left unsaid. How intense feelings and friendships can haunt us. How those memories can bring us both healing and pain, all wrapped up in a brand-new emotion we cannot name or give voice to. The push and pull of cynicism vs. openness and sentimentality… allowing yourself to get hurt. A slowly blooming heartbeat on a page, this story.  Leesa Cross-Smith


 

In high school, you know a girl who disappears months before graduation. One day, she stops coming to school, and you never see her again.

Usually, you avoid the other Muslim kids—the ones who dance to bhangra music during school assemblies—on principle. There are only a handful of them and they aren’t in any of your AP classes anyway, so there is no point in getting to know them. But in your senior year, in newspaper class, there is a girl who wears a hijab, white and scallop-edged, long-sleeved blouses with delicate flower prints, and flowing skirts that reach her ankles. She has wire framed glasses, a wide, round face, and two dimples that flash every time she smiles.

You do not want to like her, and for a while, you don’t, because you think you are smarter than her and because of the hijab, but she smiles at you often, compliments your articles, and laughs at all your jokes, so you put aside your rule and become friends with her. You bond over how everything is haram. She writes an article about the new, healthier school lunches. You mark it up, hand it back to her, say it was good, except, of course, school lunches are haram. You tell her that when you are a famous author, you will write a children’s book called Everything Is Haram and So Are You.

The last time you see her, she grabs your arm, pulls you into the bathroom, puts a finger to her lips and takes off her hijab in front of you. You actually gasp. Look, she says, and shakes her head. She has long, dark hair. It makes her face seem slimmer and more grown up. Haram! you want to joke. Instead, you say, quietly, it’s beautiful. You pick up an end, curl it around your finger. Don’t you wish you could wear it out? you say. You tell her how your mother tried to force you to wear a dupatta when you were twelve, but you sulked and threw a tantrum and then calmly explained to her how you would be targeted for hate crimes. You asked whether she wanted to find your dismembered body on the lawn, your severed head in the mailbox, and eventually she gave up.

For your seventeenth birthday, the girl gives you a card with Elvis Presley crooning into an old-fashioned microphone. She knows how much you love Elvis. Inside, she has written, “I’m so glad you’re my friend,” and you get teary-eyed in the cafeteria, and pretend to drink your milk until you can say thank you in a normal voice. You give her a hug, tight and hard, though you are not the hugging type. You have always thought birthday cards were stupid because you did not understand what you were supposed to do with them once you had read them. You’re cynical, you know that, your sixth-grade English teacher announced to the class, after you posited that the story about the grandmother suddenly recovering from cancer in time for her grandson’s fifth birthday party was sappy and inauthentic, and though you stand by your aesthetic judgment, at the time, you crossed your arms and slumped into your chair, your face hot and pink.

In the bathroom, with her hair down around her shoulders, she tells you how she has fallen in love with a boy in London, how they talk every night on the computer, over AOL instant messenger, how she wants to marry him, but she knows her parents won’t let her. You say, can you run away, will you run away, it’s just not fair. Maybe, she says, flashing her dimpled smile at you and lowering her head to put the hijab back on.

Here is something you can do with a birthday card: You can take it with you on every move, for fourteen years, packed with your old yearbooks—but don’t open it, because you have a strict rule about crying more than twice a year. Travel with it north, northeast, bring it back down south. Then one day, tear apart your apartment, where you get to live with a husband you chose, looking for it. But even as you are unpacking the hallway closet, throwing the miniature shampoos you steal from every hotel—but will never actually use—to the ground, know that it is gone and has disappeared without a trace.

 


ARSHIA SIMKIN was born in Pakistan and spent the first six years of her life there. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and she currently lives in Gibsonville, North Carolina, with her husband. A former lawyer, she is a graduate of the North Carolina State University MFA program in creative writing and the co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project, a creative writing organization that teaches workshops in the Triangle. Her story “No More Kissing Talk” is forthcoming in Crazyhorse’s spring 2021 issue. In her spare time, she enjoys playing badminton and water coloring.

 

Featured image by LNTH courtesy of Pixabay

 


Our Twitter micro-interview with Arshia Simkin:

Author’s Note

This was one of two pieces that I turned in for my last workshop at my MFA program at North Carolina State University. I don’t remember how I started working on it, but I know I wrote it in a single sitting, and when I read it over, I was quite sad because the work was inspired by a real friend I had known in high school and over the years I’d searched for her on Facebook many times without finding her. I thought that since the piece had made me feel something, it might make others feel something too. But I was also terrified of submitting work inspired by my own life. Would it be discounted for being too autobiographical? Fiction, after all, comes from the vaunted realm of the imagination. So, I chose to include an unnecessary (but cathartic) note with the work (condensed and edited for your reading pleasure):

You may have observed that these pieces are heavily autobiographical. I am taking the stance that this is not a problem. I don’t see why having experienced something makes it any less valuable as an artistic source. The author must still select significant details carefully, must condense, may elide, exaggerate, enlarge—do any or all of the things they would to a purely imagined story; they must, ultimately, shape a narrative. Yet I think there are critics who devalue or dismiss fiction based on biographical details as “mere autobiography,” as if no creativity or thought went into it. I think this is partly because biography is most often associated with women, and perhaps even more often, with women of color, and by this association, becomes devalued… Backstory that nobody asked for: I was inspired to write this partly because of The Washington Post Book World. Back when I was fifteen or sixteen, I would often read the WaPo Book World insert, as cool teens are wont to do. I came across an article about some book by an old white man’s childhood in New England. It seemed to be the type of book that makes my eyes cross with boredom, yet the reviewer went on and on about how elegiac and wonderful it was. I tried to discern from the review what made it so elegiac and wonderful, but I could not tell. And then I had the realization that nothing I wrote would ever have the same kind of reception—nothing I had to say would be deemed inherently valuable or universal in the way that this man’s childhood experiences were. (It is quite possible that this man wrote a very good book, and I am being unfair. But I don’t think that detracts from how I felt, or my larger point that there are certain categories of people who can use biography in fiction without being dismissed or having their talent questioned.)

I considering changing certain details to make it less autobiographical—say, changing the singer from “Elvis Presley” to “Frank Sinatra”—but I resisted the impulse. It would be a surface level appeasement of sorts. I had written a fictional and, I hoped, emotionally true story: that was what mattered.

I played around with changing the work to the first person, but it lost some of its magic: the cadences didn’t feel as incantatory and dreamlike. I liked how the second person forced the reader—any reader—even the mythical white male reader—to become the young Pakistani girl in the story. I liked starting and ending with a disappearance. I liked how quickly I, who usually needed pages and pages to get to the point, had managed to establish the friendship.

So, my advice—especially to women writers, and especially to women writers of color who question the value of their experiences and work? Your stories are important too.

 


ARSHIA SIMKIN was born in Pakistan and spent the first six years of her life there. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and she currently lives in Gibsonville, North Carolina, with her husband. A former lawyer, she is a graduate of the North Carolina State University MFA program in creative writing and the co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project, a creative writing organization that teaches workshops in the Triangle. Her story “No More Kissing Talk” is forthcoming in Crazyhorse’s spring 2021 issue. In her spare time, she enjoys playing badminton and water coloring.